Val McDermid: Pioneer Award Spotlight

“I had a desire to make sure that the generations of women coming after me would not have to endure the cultural desert I grew up in.”

Val McDermid is a Scottish crime writer who has written more than 25 books, most recently Trick of the Dark (Little Brown, 2010).

What got you started writing? Have you always written gay characters?

Reading made me a writer. I lost myself in other people’s books when I was a kid then realized I could lose myself in my own storytelling. From then on, that was all I wanted to do.

Once I understood the nature of my own sexuality (I was 18 before it dawned on me that being lesbian was even a possibility) I’ve included gay characters in what I’ve written. Sometimes as the protagonists, sometimes as key foreground figures, sometimes as incidental characters. But always there.

What do you want to do in your writing that you haven’t yet?

Get better! Every book is a challenge to improve some quality of my work, and it’s one of the main reasons that I still enjoy what I do. I want to learn from my own mistakes and from the successes and failures of other writers. Yeats called it, ‘the fascination of what’s difficult.’

How were things different in the LGBT publishing world when you started publishing?

When I was first published in 1987, no mainstream commercial publisher would have considered my book for a nanosecond. Only niche publishers catering for lesbians and feminists wanted books with big old queers taking centre stage. Now, in the UK at least, pretty much every big house has starry lesbian authors headlining their catalogues. Writers such as Sarah Waters, Jeanette Winterson, Ali Smith, Stella Duffy, Jackie Kay and the Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy have high public prominence. There’s been a sea change, and it’s very heartening. My latest book, Trick of the Dark, is chock-full of lesbians, and everywhere except the US it’s being published by all my usual publishers.

What kind of ground in the LGBT literature world have you strived to break?

My first creation, Lindsay Gordon, was the first British lesbian detective. When her debut, A Report for Murder,  was published in Russia in 2001, I’m told it was the first novel ever officially published there with a lesbian protagonist! I’ve always wanted to write about lesbians living in the world. I don’t want to live in a ghetto, and I won’t write in one. From the start, I had a desire to make sure that the generations of women coming after me would not have to endure the cultural desert I grew up in. I wanted to create a body of work in which they could see their lives reflected, and I wanted it to give pleasure too.

Who have been pioneers who you’ve looked up to, and who has broken ground for you?

When I was an undergraduate at Oxford, reading Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics was an extraordinary moment for me. It changed the way I looked at books and really politicised me.

But as a lesbian trying to write crime fiction, three writers made a real difference for me in the early days. From Katherine Forrest, I learned how to weave lesbian lives into gripping stories in a credible way; from Barbara Wilson, I learned to be brave and take risks in my own stories; and from Mary Wings, I learned the value of being outrageous and the power of humour. Without the example of those three, it would have been almost impossible for me to get started.

What do you think about the future of LGBT publishing? What do you think about going digital with e-books?

I think we’re in a time of great flux. I see e-books as just another means of delivering the text to the readers, but we have to guard against the thieves who rob our writings of value and make it impossible for writers to be rewarded for their work. I passionately support the traditional publishing model of writers working with editors to make their work the best it can be, and although I know this not a popular view, I believe that there is a hierarchy of writing talent. Democracy of access does not equal democracy of talent. We shouldn’t settle for the lowest common denominator just because it’s cheap and easy.

Where do you hope to see in the LGBT literature world in the future?

A mountain of terrific stories, written well and made easily accessible to all.

Photo: Donna Aceto/Lambda Literary Foundation